Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2002   by Andrew Ross

Cover Story: A Voice From the West

Sean Corcelli, Incoming Chairman of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada Believes Change Is in the Wind for the Association. and That's a Good Thing.

Canada is a big country. So big, in fact, that it is often defined in terms of its regions rather than as a whole. Regional realities shape the way Canadians look at themselves and others–in terms of Eastern or Western perspectives–and it shapes business.

One of the few things that most in Canada will agree on is that no mode of transport, either actual or virtual, has been able to erase the regional differences that are as much a part of Canadian life and Canadian business today as a century ago when two ribbons of steel were laid to tie the country together. Even today, getting a message out to markets and people in Canada requires great effort and more than a little travelling time.

The current climate of business mergers and ownership changes has brought this reality into sharp focus.

Incoming Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA) chairman Sean Corcelli knows it is a pivotal time for the aftermarket and the association. He says it is time for the association to realize that there is simply no substitute for taking a show on the road. While the association’s annual convention has been traditionally well attended, the profile of that attendance has changed over the years. Jobber participation has slipped gradually lower in off-show years, and fell almost off the map at the 2001 edition in Penticton, B.C., despite what was perhaps the strongest convention program ever.

“We have struggled to get our wholesaler members to the national conventions such as Penticton, and there are some of us who want to close that chapter and get to a series of regional conventions to get the participation from our grassroots wholesalers,” says Corcelli.

“We need to stop trying to bring the membership to the AIA and take the AIA to the membership.”

As general manager of Acklands-Grainger’s Bumper to Bumper business, he reached a similar realization last year. That organization is now putting on a series of “road shows,” rather than one central trade show in Edmonton. And, when it came time in February to roll out the details of USI-AGI Prairies Inc., the new joint venture of Acklands-Grainger and Uni-Select Inc., he brought the discussions to employees in a series of meetings throughout the western provinces.

While not in any way a direct result of those decisions, he clearly believes that the association needs to adopt the same approach to reaching its membership across the country.

“Our association is struggling with how to get the message to wholesalers. One of our objectives is to take the regional conventions to the field. There is a possibility that we will take one or two-day conventions to Manitoba, Alberta, B.C., Atlantic Canada, etc.”

Corcelli believes that, while many of the association’s regional divisions put on events such as golf tournaments and educational meetings, too few have the resources to consistently mount high-quality events.

“Even when I was chairman of the Northern Alberta Division and won Division of the Year, I thought about all the things we could have done, but weren’t able to,” says Corcelli.

The reasons for this are manifold. One of the key issues is that having fewer manufacturer sales personnel in the field means they can’t shoulder as much of the work as they used to. But Corcelli believes that the resources of the association’s national office in Ottawa can be put to use more effectively at the regional level to solve this problem.

“Because I am a Westerner, my feelings are enhanced that we need to get something out to the community, but if I lived in Windsor I might feel the same. We have to get the AIA out to the members and dispel this belief that it is less responsive or less in touch with the membership than it is.”

His reasoning is grounded in the practical realization of the need to bring knowledge and services to a membership that is overwhelmingly made up of small business owners who must remain close to those businesses.

Corcelli says, with some pride, that he feels he is one of a vanishing breed of executives who have experience at all levels of the distribution chain. He has worked in stockrooms, behind the counter, in outside sales for jobber stores, in purchasing at a warehouse, and managed warehousing operations.

He also admits that his perspective is colored by his Western experience. Now into his 25th year living the realities of Western Canada life, something he is proud to bring to the chairman’s job, he is not actually from the West.

Until he was an adult, he stayed pretty close to home, which was London, Ont. It was there that he took his passion for muscle cars and turned it into an after-school job at McKerlie-Millen’s head office. It was an easy walk to work every day, and it turned into a career halfway across the country.

After holding down a variety of positions over several years at the jobber store level in London, he had a hankering to move out west. He called on old associate John Sutherland, who he had met during his time at McKerlie-Millen. Sutherland had moved out west to head up NAPA’s first incursion into the Canadian market–in the mid-1970s–and it wasn’t long before Corcelli joined him in Calgary as a management trainee.

“I wrote to ask him if he needed anybody. His reply was ‘Pack your bags and come west, young man.'” His work in Calgary lasted only two and half years before he joined the Acklands organization in Edmonton, but it set the course for everything that has shaped his life and his perspective on business. It formed the basis of his personal life too, and he and wife Anne together raised three daughters, now 17, 19 and 21.

In the meantime, he worked his way up and through virtually every job at Acklands, and was named general manager of Acklands-Grainger’s prairie division in 1999. He has already played an important role in the ushering in of the new USI-AGI Prairies Inc. organization, though his exact role within that joint venture had yet to be finalized at the time of this writing.

“I’ve skipped a few jobs, but from a conventional aftermarket perspective, I’ve done most positions from stores through to distribution centers. I don’t mean to be too bold, but I believe it gives me a very grassroots perspective on the aftermarket. Although I may be considered in an executive position, I’m probably one of the last who has walked up the ladder, who has come up through the ranks.

“Even today, at the so-called executive level, my customers are still jobbers and they are still at the grassroots. Being able to relate first hand to all the grassroots jobs gives me tremendous insight.”

Corcelli says that it’s no coincidence that this perspective will color his year as chairman. It also colors his view of the aftermarket, as major changes take place in the way the distribution segment is structured and staffed.

“There’s a new wave of executives and management that will bring a tremendous amount of good to our industry. I’m certainly not one to complain about that. We certainly have to bring educated executives into our industry, but I hope that we can blend the old and the new so that the grassroots won’t be totally overlooked.

“It’s my desire to embrace the skills these new people bring to the aftermarket, and assist them in gaining and including some grassroots into their repertoire. To some degree, I envy their laptop capabilities and the statistical data they have.

“But at the moment I’m a bit wary and I am a bit concerned that some of our Canadian rural uniqueness won’t be observed. Missing the unique qualities could mean missed opportunities.

“There are still a tremendous number of people doing business with people in this business. We must take these new executives and help them meet our customers. I have confidence that we’ll do that.

“We’re probably in the growing pains era.”

Beyond the difficulties of today’s aftermarket changes, Corcelli is very focused on the future, too. One of the most critical functions of the AIA is how it relates the industry to the work force of tomorrow. He says that the industry must simply do a better job at that level.

“What better way to attr
act them than to get into the schools and start educating students on what the aftermarket is and what the opportunities may be.

“Then maybe we can stand a chance of attracting the youth we so often cry for.”

He’s not laying blame, but he believes that many in the industry have been living with these problems for so long that the sense of urgency to address them may have dulled.

“Many of us are lucky enough to go to the conventions, but we can’t just keep going to conventions and lamenting about these issues. We need to change what we’re doing.

“Our three pillars are Promote, Educate and Represent. Do we have the best mechanisms to support our three pillars? These are not brand new, but perhaps the mechanisms need to change, shift or be adjusted.” He is looking for AIA’s office in Ottawa to play a critical role in making this change, and he believes it is up to the task.

“I think any change is difficult, but these are professionals. They understand clearer than I do some of the issues we have. I think we will be able to make the necessary changes.”

He cites, as a prime example, the major shift in the focus of the Canadian International Automotive Show coming in May. The event has become primarily a show for manufacturers and services providers and an educational event, rather than a recruitment venue for warehouse distribution organizations. Competition between distribution organizations for attendees’ time had become a contentious point at previous shows.

“None of the WDs are participating on the show floor (though they are supporting off-show-floor activities). There is a tremendous calendar of events and I think that what we’re going to learn is how fulfilling that will be. If the attendance is what we think it will be, there will be some fulfillment there that we are providing what the industry is asking for.”

His agenda–to make significant changes in the way the AIA delivers services to the membership and substantially improve the quality and degree of contact with schools and students–is ambitious to be sure. He knows that he may not accomplish everything in one short year, but his confidence is unwavering that these things can be accomplished.

“I suppose we go into these positions with high hopes, but if I can nudge the association towards some of these adjustments, that would be satisfactory for me. The industry has been very good to me and I’m very pleased to give back to it.

“If we can make some slight adjustments in how we approach the members and my successor is of similar mind, then we can accomplish all these things.”

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